It's the year of the set-top box, and the more of these devices that pass through my home, the more convinced I am that we're never going to find a single winner, that one device that makes sense for almost everyone. So far, I've looked at the new Apple TV, the Roku Player, and the WD TV Live Plus, but the latest challenger to the crown takes a decidedly different approach than these simple boxes, offering a wellspring of content choices, all comingled into a pretty decent UI. In fact, this new entry, the Boxee Box from D-Link, is almost everything that Google promised for its Google TV. There's just one huge difference: Unlike Google TV, the Boxee Box isn't a freaking disaster. In fact, it's pretty good.
Boxee Box is an appliance built around the well-regarded if quirky Boxee software, which you can download separately, and for free, for Windows. As such, even the box itself is quirky: The Boxee Box resembles a cube that has sunken, or melted, into the surface of the table on which it sits. The effect is amusing, and it's a nice-looking device, though you'll never be able to stack anything on it.
Most of the expected ports are there: HDMI but not component, as is common these days, two USB, Ethernet (Wi-Fi is built-in too), S/PDIF optical out, RCA stereo out, and even an SD memory card slot. Notably, the Boxee Box ships with an actual HDMI cable, something you don't see very often with the competition.
The remote is excellent, and two sided, and a nice size and weight in the hand, unlike Apple's woeful remote, which seems almost magnetically attracted to be lost between the cushions of your couch. On one side are the expected playback buttons, all large and easy to use. But on the other is a full, if smallish alphanumeric keyboard. And you'll need it: Thanks to Boxee Box's integration with web-based content sources, you'll be doing a lot of logging in at first. It works well.
As a modern computing device, the out of Boxee experience (sorry) is sadly familiar: You'll need to go through a tedious setup process where you logon to (or create) your Boxee account, and then download and install the inevitable first software update. (This isn't D-Link's fault, but I coincidentally received a software update for my Sony Internet TV at the same time, causing some confusion about which remote I needed to use to apply the update I was being notified about. Relax: I did figure it out.)
After all the rigmarole is complete, you can actually get down to business and connect to your own content--either over the network or attached via SD or USB-based storage--and to a wide range of online services that offer TV shows and movies. This is where Boxee Box really differentiates itself from the competition, and not just in the wide range of available content sources, but in the way that they are aggregated together and presented in a single, cohesive interface. On a box like the Roku, you must first navigate into a special area, or app, for each content provider--Netflix, Amazon, and so on--but on Boxee Box, there are no walled gardens. You just go look for TV shows or movies.
What is--and is not--available on Boxee Box is somewhat confusing. For example, though Netflix is near ubiquitous across many, many devices, Boxee Box is the one major exception. On the other hand, Boxee Box does provide access to videos from such a wide range of web sites and online services that it's sort of bewildering. The experience varies from source to source, and not just the video quality--which ranges from excellent all the way down to pre-HD YouTube--but also the look and feel. While this isn't necessarily the best way to describe what Boxee Box is doing, the device is basically performing a video-based version of screenscraping, where it locates web-based video content, blasts it to the TV screen sans the surrounding web page and, where possible, presents it as a seamless, normal-looking video. Sometimes it works, but sometimes it doesn't, and when it doesn't, you'll see weird relics from the web site, like the web playback controls (which you can't interact with) or timeline.
But even with these weirdnesses, the Boxee Box does succeed in parsing the web for content and then presenting it as a single whole. Browsing for content can be a bit tedious, but you can search as well, shades of Google TV. Local playback--of content from your network or attached storage--works pretty well too, and I was able to attach to my Windows Home Server-based content easily, using the remote's handy mini-keyboard to provide the necessary credentials. Boxee Box is compatible with a wide range of video formats, including Flash, MPEG-2, H.264/MP, DivX, Xvid, and WMV.
Boxee Box also provides a number of apps, including a decent and unique Pandora client, Flickr, Vimeo, and more. And yes, Netflix and Hulu Plus are coming soon as well.
Boxee Box is a great example of what is essentially a hacker's playground making it to the big leagues, and it is largely successful. But it's really not the type of thing I'd recommend to my parents or anyone that doesn't like to tinker around. Apple TV and Roku are the safe choices for accessing PC- and cloud-based content in the living room. But Boxee Box does more, a lot more. It's just a bit too unpolished right now to broadly recommend. I suspect that won't always be the case, and I'll be keeping my eye on this one. You should too.